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The Djinn Waits A Hundred Years coverWhen I picked up Shubnum Khan’s The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years, I found it very hard to put down again. It reminded me of the time in my early twenties when I read a lot of postcolonial and emigrant novels, with bonus points for poetic style and themes of star-crossed lovers, as in Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet [1999] and Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter [2001], or sprinkled with a smattering of fantasy and magic, most notably some cherry-picked Alice Hoffman novels. Set in Durban, South Africa, where the author is based, and revolving around the Indian roots that she shares with her protagonist, The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years contains all my favourite literary flavours, and this includes vivid descriptions of delicious food from various regions of India.

The story is a historical narrative on two levels, told in a perpetual present simple tense, which lends it a fairy-tale quality. The frame story, which is never really fixed in time but which I place in the early noughties (right when I was into the books mentioned above), is an initiation story centered around a teenage girl, Sana, whose father, Bilal, has decided to leave past trauma and grief behind and move them into a new Home (capitalised for its symbolic value). They find it in Akbar Manzil (not only named after the man who commissioned it, but also literally the Largest or Greatest House) a run-down colonial mansion converted into flats. The house resembles the backdrops of countless ghost stories: corridors that, because of their modified layout, don’t make sense; dodgy electricity, missing and/or broken bulbs, leaky pipes, drips from the ceiling; dead-ends crammed with old, dusty artefacts. Fittingly, there are hints at the truncated family being haunted (both by things and events from their past): fleeting visions, scars, Sana’s being easily startled and repeating to herself, like an incantation, “It’s nothing. It’s nothing. Its nothing” (p.26).

By contrast, the other inhabitants of the house are a colourful, mismatched bunch of Indian immigrants who squabble endlessly and give life to the place. This juxtaposition creates a dreamy narrative that keeps hovering between the plausible and the fantastic. This atmosphere is very well crafted, since our main protagonist at this stage is fifteen and an introvert. In this time between childhood and adulthood, things seem overcharged with symbolic meaning, always on the threshold of becoming something larger, of revealing some greater or higher truth. And indeed, the house itself and the objects inside it are often described as if they are alive and desperately holding on to their secrets. But Sana is onto them, shying away from kids her own age and rejecting the bright and bustling outside world in favour of exploring the dark and dusty corridors of Akbar Manzil in search of clues to the house’s history. When she finds and unlocks a hidden room, she opens up the other narrative—the story of the family who created the place, which Sana deciphers from found diaries dating back to the 1920s.

In 1919, Akbar Ali Khan is a young Indian immigrant travelling to Durban with his new wife Jahanara. They are quite posh, so they are travelling by ship with a lot of upper-class English people. While Jahanara desperately wants to achieve the impossible and be one of them, mimicking them in language and fashion, her husband is constantly roaming the ship, talking to workers, playing dice with them, and occasionally lending a hand around the ship. They are in love, so they don’t yet notice how mismatched they are in personality and ambition. While Jahanara hates Africa in all its facets—the landscape, the climate, the people, the food—Akbar quickly falls in love with the city of Durban and declares it home (p. 87). He starts a business in the sugar industry and has the grand house built. The finished building turns out to be a large-scale folly, amazing and luxurious, including a garden filled with exotic animals. When his first child is born, he moves his mother in from India, who turns out to fit the stereotype of the Dragon Lady, ruling the household with an iron fist and replacing all Westernized elements with expensive cultural artefacts from her home country.

Akbar falls in love with Meena, a factory worker, and talks her into becoming his second wife. She actually spurns him at first, but her father, who only wishes to escape endless poverty, agrees to the marriage behind her back. Hatred and disdain for this “dark” and “coarse” creature (p.107) is the single factor that unites Jahanara and her mother-in-law. They make sure to tell her very directly that she will never be welcome in their house. As a reaction, Meena annoys them by being deliberately “coarse," wearing plain dresses and letting her hair hang loose, cleaning her own room instead of ordering the maids around, refusing tandoori chicken and saffron rice, and eating dhal with her hands instead. Bit by bit, though, she notices that Akbar isn’t the bourgeois pig that she had expected, wanting only to own and control people. Instead, she finds him caring, compassionate, kind. He looks after his workers’ welfare and pays them better rates than his competitors. He is content to sit in her room while she ignores him, not even touching her without her consent. She starts reading the poetry he leaves for her, and slowly and tenderly, she discovers that she reciprocates his love.

In the 2000s, Sana reads about their love story in Meena’s diaries. Having felt as abandoned and unloved as the rundown mansion for most of her young life, she now starts to clean Meena’s room, desperate to find a definition of love that will help her face her own haunting.

The supernatural element in this book is twofold, like the narrative. First, there is the titular Djinn, who once upon a time fell in love with Meena’s voice, followed her family from India to South Africa, and has been sitting in the decaying building ever since, mourning the past. We can decide to read him as real or metaphorical (and we’ll see that he can mimic a very Western, Victorian-style ghost as well, for reasons given in the book); but he definitely has a function as a memory keeper. Then there is the very personal haunting that Sana brings with her: a phantom sister. This is a phantom as in a ghost, but at the same time something more—a lost conjoined twin, a painful quantum absence/presence like a missing limb, like their landlord’s amputated leg. Between this ghostly sister, who usually appears as a visual manifestation of intrusive thoughts and/or suicidal ideation, and her complex and almost paradoxical grief for a mother who was always distant and sometimes neglectful, Sana craves to find out what happened to Meena as a sort of remedy. It is as if learning about a successful and prevailing love in the past will help Sana bring it into the present and heal and nourish her, make her feel whole.

Without spoiling too much of the drama that unfolds once Sana finds the last bridge to the past that hasn’t been burned, let me warn you that, while using the voice of a fairy tale, this story doesn’t have a “happily ever after” for everyone. Like the most effective hauntings, the climax of this story approaches stealthily, first via small references—glimpses that don’t yet make sense, like the ever-transforming, history-echoing Djinn’s “mangled leg” (p. 92)—then by carefully placing the requisite elements one by one, just so—until, at the decisive moment, we realise that for chapters on end we’ve been looking at a very lethal plot device; Chekhov’s lion. I can also tell you that even at this point, the story isn’t over for everyone, and that in the end there is a modicum of poetic justice, and a large amount of hope.

The house itself is often described as if it, and to some extent the objects inside it, were living things—watching (p. 78), remembering (p. 52), “even the kitchen smells whispering” (p. 53), fleeing and hiding (p. 54). This motif is taken up every once in a while but never lasts long enough to become annoying. What’s much more foregrounded is the dichotomy between the Djinn and the ghost—one of an Arabic/Indian and Muslim background, the other very Western, like Jahanara’s elusive white Victorian ideal. Both of them inhabit the house simultaneously, vaguely recalling the small-scale cultural war between the first wife and her mother-in-law, removing English oil paintings and putting up Indian tapestries and vice versa, day and night. The author isn’t favouring the Djinn over the ghost or the other way round, simply because neither she nor anyone is forced to pick one culture over another. They can coexist, even if their relationship is a complex and problematic one.

There are also two further motifs that I noticed recurring in various shapes and on various levels and timelines, establishing connections between characters separated by history—and enabling the reader to re-associate their earlier iterations with newfound symbolism. One is the motif of beans (and legumes in general). The child Sana’s loneliness and hunger—for food and for her absent mother—is illustrated by a singled-out memory of trying and failing to open a tin of beans (p. 71). Tinned beans without any condiments are also shown as the food of lonely people who don’t have a reason (or the energy) to cook (p. 255). On the other hand, there are several mentions of dhal chawal, a basic workers’ dish of lentils and rice that stands for sustenance and community (and can also be elevated to suit the posh table by a good cook).

Secondly, there is the motif of flowers, especially the omnipresent jasmine, which clearly symbolises love: budding, flowering, infusing everything with its scent, enduring decades and re-blossoming. There are many mentions of paper flowers—love as fleeting, ephemeral—and of a rose garden— untended or tended, destroyed or rumoured to have survived. Love (not just romantic love) and flowers (not just jasmine) both have to be tended to, especially if they have been neglected—but with the proper care, they will return, revive, and bloom.

The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years turned out to be one of my favourite reads this year. (I’m writing this in November 2023.) I devoured this novel like a favourite dish made with warming spices after a period of convenience food and cold hands and feet. It has so many intriguing layers: a history of the house from its conception to its destruction, the history of a (however mismatched) family, and a love story, all uncovered by someone who thinks that she isn’t loved until she realises that love comes in different forms—and herself becomes the new keeper of the history, finally passing it on to the last surviving family member and thus tying all those loose ends to the extent that it is possible to do so. I enjoyed this novel tremendously. It is a very well-rounded dish which leaves me warm and satisifed—and not even craving or having space for a small literary kulfi after.

Phoenix Scholz is based in Vienna, Austria. They have published articles on science fiction, weird fiction, and superhero comics in Alluvium and On Infinite Earths as well as short stories in The Big Click, Visionarium, Wyrd Daze, and Open Polyversity. Their first published novelettino is Dun da de Sewolawen: The Heart of Silence. They blog at
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